Natalia Molina

American Historian Class of 2020
Portrait of Natalia Molina

Revealing how narratives of racial difference that were constructed and applied to immigrant groups a century ago continue to shape national policy today.

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Los Angeles, California
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49 at time of award
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About Natalia's Work

Natalia Molina is a historian examining how concepts of race, notions of citizenship, and questions of belonging emerged from narratives of racial difference that have been applied to distinct immigrant groups in the United States over time. She considers the histories of Latinx and Asian immigrants in relation to one another, drawing out connections among the systems of exclusion and segregation they have faced.

In her first book, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (2006), Molina documents the ways in which the medical establishment used public health campaigns to contain, control, and categorize immigrant groups. Spanning a six-decade, peak-migration era, when a rapidly expanding Los Angeles was particularly dependent on low-wage labor, her study explores how the county health department classified first Chinese, then Japanese, then Mexican workers as inherently healthy or disease-ridden, clean or unclean, moral or profligate. Such classifications further limited these populations’ access to housing and medical services and stigmatized members of these groups as threats to public health in ways that persist to this day. Molina’s second book, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (2014), delves into a broad range of archival sources to analyze the characterization of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants as unsuitable for citizenship and subject to deportation during the middle decades of the twentieth century. She also advances a theory of racial scripts, a framework she employs to explain how certain attitudes, stereotypes, and policies of exclusion have been adapted and applied to different marginalized groups across historical periods and geographies. Molina is currently at work on two new book projects. “Place-makers: The Story of an Ethnic Mexican Community in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles” centers on the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where Mexican restaurants fostered multi-ethnic community bonds. By telling the story of these vibrant and cosmopolitan institutions, she seeks to recover histories that have been erased by gentrification and to challenge negative representations of neighborhoods similar to Echo Park as “barrio wastelands” in need of redevelopment. In “The Silent Hands that Shaped the Huntington: A History of Its Mexican Gardeners,” she continues her investigation into the role of ethnic Mexicans in the making of Los Angeles.

In addition to her scholarship, Molina addresses current events and issues such as birthright citizenship and the denial of services to immigrant families in opinion pieces in national media outlets and on social media. Molina sheds light on recurring patterns of discrimination and articulates for academic and general readers alike how regional practices implemented over a century ago continue to influence perceptions and policies at the national level.


Natalia Molina received a BA (1993) from the University of California at Los Angeles and an MA (1996) and PhD (2001) from the University of Michigan. From 2001 to 2018, she taught in the Departments of History and Ethnic Studies and the Urban Studies Program at the University of California at San Diego, where she also served as associate dean of the Division of Arts and Humanities and associate vice chancellor for Faculty Diversity and Equity. She is currently a professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and, for the 2020-2021 academic year, a Huntington Library Fellow. Molina has published articles in such journals as American Journal of Public Health, Southern California Quarterly, Western Historical Quarterly, Pacific Historical Review, and Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, among others. She is also the co-editor of Relational Formations of Race: Theory, Method, and Practice (2019).

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In Natalia's Words



“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” is a quote that people often use when they want to show the importance of history. But this quote encourages us to think that history is in the past. My work shows how histories—especially as they pertain to the stories we tell about race, and the policies we develop around race—are still very much with us today. If we understand the many historical factors that shaped where we are today, then we have the power to re-imagine where we can go from here.

Published on October 6, 2020

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